Going All In; Getting All Out

Award-winning author Susan Traugh’s work can be found on her website at susantraugh.com. She has been writing for 30 years. Her young adult novel, The Edge of Brilliance, is available at Amazon.

“I’m just a mom,” I said in answer to the question at the dinner party. As I stood facing his colleague who had asked the question, I watched my husband’s surprised face as he engaged in a separate conversation next to me.

“What do you mean ‘you’re just a mom’?” he asked on the way home. “You’re a writer—you’re good. What are you talking about?”

I knew he was shocked. But, I couldn’t help how I felt. Yes, I wrote. But not what I wanted. Not the way I wanted. As the stay-at-home mom taking care of three disabled kids, my life was a whirlwind of medical emergencies, hospital runs, doctor’s visits and kids who were both physically and emotionally fragile. THAT was my main job—and it wasn’t fodder for cocktail parties. I was more private than that.

I did write. I’d tried children’s picture books (because they were ‘fast’,) but my plots were trite and my ideas shallow. I’d tried beginning readers, but my heart just wasn’t in them. I wrote lesson plans for my husband’s music books, or articles for small magazines when the kids were asleep. Yes, it was writing. Yes, it was published. But it fed our piggy bank—not my soul.

I wanted to write the great American novel. I’d wanted to do it since I was a kid. For me, THAT was the definition of a writer and I would not be successful until THAT goal was reached.

But it just wasn’t happening. Between the kids’ needs, my lack of time, my lack of energy and a writer’s block that had lived in my head for a decade, my novel glittered at me like a tiny, taunting beacon at the end of an enormously long tunnel. I had responsibilities. I had obligations. Novel-writing was an indulgence we couldn’t afford.

Besides, I had no clue what I even wanted to write about. While I had plenty of life experiences to write about, I was private. I wasn’t a Facebook divulger or a cocktail party gossip. Yes, I wanted to write a book about the human soul. I wanted to write a book that would resonate through the ages. But, I didn’t want to rip my heart out to do it.

And that left the paper blank. Then life would contort in a way that forced me to bear my soul on the page.

In addition to all the other medical and psychological issues my kids already faced, at puberty, my youngest daughter had developed a severe form of bipolar disorder and everything began careening out of control. Soon life was a whirlwind of hospitalizations, unpredictability, police encounters, bad decisions and the terrifying consequences of my daughter’s bizarre behavior. As I fought harder and harder to save my child’s life, any hope of writing anything was washed away from me by the tsunami of mental illness.

Night after night I lay awake crying for my daughter, crying for her lack of future and crying for all the way I was losing her. Night after night I was haunted by the realization that, no matter what I did, I might not be able to save her life. The heartache and helplessness felt like they would destroy me. I believed I had nowhere to turn. I had nowhere to go. The maze of mental healthcare was arduous and uncertain. Gaps and rules made the journey treacherous. I had no reliable mentor or shoulder to cry upon. Navigating alone and in the dark, I did not know where to turn.

And so I started to write. Suddenly all the pieces came together: if I couldn’t save my daughter’s life, I could save the life of my protagonist in my novel. If I couldn’t find the right meds, a safe facility, or a happy ending for my child—I could do it for my character. If I couldn’t find the answers to my myriad problems with my girl—I could find direction as the characters came alive in my book and offered me advice.

The flood gates opened and I began to pour my heart, my pain and my hope into my novel. When my daughter’s behavior became extremely difficult, instead of lying in bed crying, I sat at the computer typing out a solution.

When the love for my own child threatened to rip my heart apart, I poured that love into my characters. And my story began to write itself—take on a life of its own—direct me to a place of peace and healing pain that felt real and whole and full of hope. Yes, the tsunami of mental illness had devastated the landscape and removed every landmark of familiarity, comfort and security. But that bareness of ground opened up a wide expanse to fill with hope. There was no place to be private. There was nowhere to hide. I was exposed for the whole world to see as I wrote fiction—but fiction whose fundamental truths reached down into my soul and scrawled them all across the page.

This was my rawest self. This was my most exposed self. The private me was stripped bare and displayed to the world. And yet, it was okay. I realized that, by stripping bare, by telling all, by exposing my wounds, I’d found a way to my most precious inner truth…and a publisher saw this.

My book is out. It is getting good reviews. I can now say, with confidence, that I wrote the great American novel. But I did more than that.

For, in the process, I faced my own fears, I found unique, creative answers to my problems and I forged a bond with my daughter that has pulled us both through the storm and into a relationship of mutual respect, health, support and love. Did I go all in? Absolutely. But, it was what I got out of it that counts.